CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
Moldy Bread, and Other Existential Terrors
Note: I am not committing to a new series, though this is a fantasy setting I’ve been working on for a while. This is up here as reference for this article. Also, I like it.
“Binnah says they found mold on the bread again.” Varik said this as if no one had noticed the ragged pieces of bread torn out from the loaves they’d passed around at dinner. I grunted, unwilling to be drawn into a conversation about moldy food, but too tired to say or do much else.
“He says Surim tried to eat it,” Varik continued. “And Surim doubled over sick for the rest of the day. Then they fed some to the goats, and most of them died.”
I remembered my annoyance at the torn bread at dinner, and thought perhaps it may have been over-hasty. I’d assumed, at the time, that they were just trying to stretch the daily ration. If they were actually trying to keep us from dying, I was willing to go a little hungrier than usual.
Varik continued, undaunted by my silence. “Binnah also said the Lord Captain was angry, because he wants to get us to Urit before the next tenday.”
That got my attention. My next grunt was slightly more encouraging.
Varik, like any true showman, took the opportunity and ran with it. “It’s part of a new contract, Binnah says. And the Lord Captain expects fighting hours after arrival.”
There it was—he’d learned we were facing our first battle, and he was obviously fixated on it. I, on the other hand, focused on the prospect of a tenday of hard travel, some of it through desert. I was a warlock, so I did not groan at the prospect of all that exertion. I did not, because it was not the kind of thing a warlock did. However, because I was a journeyman warlock, only recently released from apprenticeship, I did permit myself to sigh dejectedly.
I lay on the ground, wrapped in my cloak, my head propped up on my pack, my pike laid out to my right. It wasn’t comfortable, but I was tired enough to sleep anyway.
“Maybe,” I said, not bothering to hide my fatigue, “maybe the gods will smile, and we won’t have time for drills with all that marching.”
A few of my fellow brothers in arms, all similarly bundled and wrapped, snorted in amusement. I could hardly blame them for their lack of optimism. Our sergeant was, I was convinced at the time, a djinn taken human form who was comissioned, by some god yet to be named, to torment all who choose to make war their profession. He would likely find time to drill the “green recruits” at some point after the march ended, when we wanted to do nothing more than eat and fall over. Or during the march, if he knew a way. Or during the march and then also after the march, because he didn’t like how we’d drilled during the march. I wouldn’t have put it past him.
If Varik thought the notion unlikely, he at least didn’t say it aloud. Instead, he went back to the part of the news that mattered to him most.
“But fighting, Eram. Binnah said the Lord Captain expects fighting.”
I wearily raised my head, giving Varik a baleful stare. The effect was spoiled by a lack of light—we were too far from the fire, and all I could see was the silhouette of the young man as he sat up, hunched over, but he was clearly agitated. I couldn’t see the expression on his face, but I could hear it in his voice—excitement and fear. But not the good kind of excitement, and while fear definitely has its uses it tended to make the bad kind of excitement worse.
“Of course Binnah expects fighting,” I said. “We’re a rutting mercenary company. That’s the whole point of the gig, isn’t it?”
Varik didn’t reply. He just remained sitting, probably brooding, probably letting the excitement and fear settle in and make long-term plans. He was younger than I, and our first day on the roles he’d latched on to me like the younger brother I’d never had. He was mostly sensible; his only obvious fault was a ridiculous insistence on trying to tease a beard out from a face that clearly wasn’t up to growing one, but he was young. Being sensible is a fine trait but without experience it can lead you down some unfortunate roads, and this was probably the first time he’d ever really faced the possibility of death.
“It will be fine,” I lied. “Everyone else knows what they’re doing—it doesn’t matter that we don’t. They’ll shout at us until we’re at the spot they want us, and then it will happen, and then it will be over. The best thing about being the kind of soldier we are, Varik, is that absolutely no one will be expecting us to make any actual decisions.”
I saw his silhouette shift a little, deflate a little, as if some of the tension had left him. “You might not make it,” he said, more than a little amusement in his voice. “Especially if the sergeant keeps singling you out the way he did today.”
I forced the thought of our sergeant and his strange fixation on breaking my spirit out of my mind. “Go to sleep, Varik. That’s what the rest of us are trying to do.”
That got through to him, and he finally lay down in the dirt with the rest of us. I eased my head back on to my pack and closed my eyes, but I didn’t will myself to sleep. Varik hadn’t got over the last wall yet, and I needed to stay awake to give him a leg up.
“What if I panic?”
And there it was. The last wall.
“You won’t panic,” I said.
“I’m serious.” Varik certainly sounded serious. He sounded like a man haunted by nameless ghosts. “What if, when the fighting starts, I lose my senses? What if I’m a coward?”
“You’re not a coward.”
“I’ve never been in a battle, Eram.” The haunted quality in his voice was gone, replaced with something a lot more thoughtful. “I don’t know how I’ll react. I can’t. I don’t even know what battle is like… how can I know how I’ll react to something I don’t yet understand? Maybe I’ll forget everything they’ve tried to drill into me, and I’ll go running off to save my own skin. I don’t think I can live with that.”
Time for the leg up.
“Varik…” I paused just long enough to make sure I had his complete attention. “No one who insists on calling that thing on your face a beard can be anything but the bravest man alive.”
Some of the would-be-sleeping bundles around us started laughing at that, causing even more to curse us for interrupting their sleep. They kept laughing, though. And Varik, after cursing me savagely, joined in with them. I smiled and closed my eyes, willing myself to sleep.